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Wednesday, Sep 18, 2019

Review: There’s Gunpowder In The Air by Manoranjan Byapari

Manoranjan Byapari’s new book is a poignant telling of a jailbreak, of the caste system, and of Bengal in tumult during the Naxal movement

books Updated: Jan 25, 2019 17:41 IST
Dhrubo Jyoti
Dhrubo Jyoti
Hindustan Times
Much like the man in the picture, Manoranjan Byapari once plied a cycle rickshaw in Kolkata. A conversation with author Mahasweta Devi when she hailed his rickshaw led to an offer to write for her journal. Since then, he has been widely published, has won many awards, and is considered a pioneer of Dalit literature in Bengali.
Much like the man in the picture, Manoranjan Byapari once plied a cycle rickshaw in Kolkata. A conversation with author Mahasweta Devi when she hailed his rickshaw led to an offer to write for her journal. Since then, he has been widely published, has won many awards, and is considered a pioneer of Dalit literature in Bengali.(LightRocket via Getty Images)
172pp, Rs 499; Westland
172pp, Rs 499; Westland

My first meeting with Manoranjan Byapari was by accident, on the sidelines of a meeting convened in Kolkata five years ago. Byapari’s fiery tongue was sheathed in an affable personality and I only realised he was the writer everyone was talking about when he handed me one of his books from a large bag. In those days, the 60-something author worked back-breaking hours as a cook at an institute, and his modest Bengali publisher had little money to spare for promotion and publicity. So he carried his books to every meeting, event or seminar that he was invited to.

He didn’t need to promote his books. A short speech or a conversation was enough for the audience to turn into fans. I bought three of his books that day – and devoured them over the course of the next fortnight, each title breaking new ground for Bengali literature in its sharpness, clarity of thought, and courageous storytelling.

There’s Gunpowder In The Air is Byapari’s second offering to English writers after his searing autobiography Interrogating My Chandal Life that set Bengal afire when it first was published in 2012. It is a more measured outing than his first, the outburst of emotion is reserved till the very end, and for a book that explores serious things such as the Naxal movement, deprivation, caste and politics, flirts with comedy right at the end.

Gunpowder narrates the fictionalized story – an introductory note explains Byapari has merely shuffled names and details from his real-life experience of being behind bars – of Bengal in the throes of the Naxalite movement during the mid 70s. In the voice of an omnipresent narrator, Byapari meticulously builds up the alternative world of a jail, from the jailor, warden and support staff to the various shades of prisoners, the guards and even a ghost.

This, the first part of the book, is delightful as Byapari’s careful eye doesn’t miss anything – a jailor fearful that his comfortable post-retirement life and Bengali luncheons might be jeopardized by a jailbreak, a member of the staff adept at siphoning off milk and supplies and the jail’s elaborate routine that prisoners repeat by rote. Unlike many other works in this genre, Byapari doesn’t turn the prison into a fantasy land, or a hellhole, but treats it as an extraordinary extension of everyday prejudices and discrimination, run by people who are not monsters, but fallible men with ordinary motivations. The language is not overwrought with emotion, and the dispassionate, rooted narration is a breeze to read.

The Naxalite movement was a defining movement for several generations of Bengalis, and, as such, there has been a mountain of literature produced both in Bengali and English. There is very little left to say, and very few ways to say it. It is remarkable, therefore, that Byapari steers clear of this slippery terrain of botched narratives, over dramatization and near-melodramatic (remember The Lowland?), and writes literally as he saw it. His clean, clear and precise language does not inhibit experience or empathy, it nurtures it.

Gunpowder is essentially the story of a jailbreak and how it changes the lives of those who attempt it, who are affected by it and who witness it. But it is also several stories within the main arc, intimate character sketches such as that of the jailor’s acolyte who turns Naxal sympathizer after an unusual act of kindness inside the cell, a guard who is haunted by his own past and a young revolutionary who cannot ignore the parting words of his father warning him against becoming cannon fodder for his better-heeled, upper-caste comrades. Byapari ties them up with a expertly crafted, if somewhat dramatic, crescendo – and it must be to the author’s, and translator’s, credit that though some of the last few pages seem overstrung, it works, and doesn’t take away from the overall experience of the book.

Byapari is a fiery, unpredictable writer and hence translating him can be no easy work. Arunava Sinha deserves credit for a masterful translation although it feels at places that the jagged ends of Byapari’s Bengali original have been smoothed out; but it is equally possible that this is the unintended byproduct of taking a work into an alien language. The book is also shorter, but not poorer for it; I was particularly impressed with how beautifully the precise descriptions of the jail have been translated, and how Sinha retained the thump of the original Bengali passages describing the motivation of one of the characters – Bhogoban Sardar, my favourite – in joining the Naxals.

Author Manoranjan Byapari
Author Manoranjan Byapari ( Indranil Bhoumik/Mint )

The young man is in jail for petty theft and is conscripted by the jailors to spy on the Naxals, only to find him turn sympathizer after an ordinary act of kindness – sharing two chapatis and some tea. When the Naxals plan the jailbreak, Sardar volunteers, despite the grave dangers because he hopes that, in death, he will be called a revolutionary, and therefore, escape the caste slurs that have haunted him his entire life, and tainted his relationship with his child. “My son won’t be ashamed of his father anymore,” he says.

Gunpowder is a novel about Naxalites, but it is also a story of people. It talks of revolution, yes, but raises far more penetrating questions of which communities get to lead, and who dies a tortured death? It asks the reader to think of what she imagines when she thinks of a revolutionary, and whether millions of India’s Dalits have a space in that imagination.

Read more: The dissent of Manoranjan Byapari

Byapari’s strength lies in his powers of observation, and as evident throughout the book, writing succinctly and with empathy from experience. In his words and life, he constantly acknowledges his modest roots, often emphasizing his “chotolok” origins as opposed to the established bhadralok moorings of modern Bengali literature. In Gunpowder, he smashes both the flimsy respectability and established tropes about Dalit writers, and demonstrates the power of an author in his prime. I cannot wait for his next.

First Published: Jan 25, 2019 17:41 IST